23 Jan 2017

Rail expansion will be boon to NWI

South Shore News

One of the most common arguments I hear against extending commuter rail service in Northwest Indiana is that if it hasn’t helped the northern tier communities along the existing route, so it won’t help those along the new route. I can’t disagree more with this reasoning. Northwest Indiana is something of an anomaly when it comes to commuter rail service. All it takes to see this is to look at the entire Chicago metro area, not just our sliver of it.The rail lines in Illinois snake out into thriving suburbs. Take a trip to Naperville if you want a good example of what can come from investing in commuter rail service. Naperville is about 30 miles from Chicago. Metra serves Naperville through the Burlington Northern Santa Fe route. The city has two train stations.

 The median household income there is $109,512. Skeptics look at some of the areas along the existing South Shore Line and see communities that have been struggling. But what they don’t see is that the major investment in commuter rail service took place there long ago. The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District was formed when the major railroads didn’t want to operate passenger lines any longer. It has been serving the Region quite well. There are times when riders get stuck on trains because of service disruptions. Those are incredibly annoying. But so is being stuck in a traffic jam on one of the expressways.

I’m heartened by plans to build the West Lake Corridor route. Listening to input along the way, NICTD officials have decided to build a gateway station in Hammond. That lets riders switch from one route to another more easily. Why should riders go into Chicago before catching a train that takes them elsewhere into Northwest Indiana? The Hammond station will let riders from Dyer, for example, take the train to Gary/Chicago International Airport, to the South Bend airport or to the Indiana Dunes. Even better, when the new route opens, it won’t have to phase in service. “We’re going to full service day one, including weekend service,” South Shore Line President and General Manager Mike Noland said at a recent presentation I attended at Wicker Park in Highland. Skeptics might say that’s all well and good for the West Lake Corridor, but what about the existing route? That route is getting attention, too.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has money set aside for a double-tracking project in his proposed biennial budget. This project is chugging along, and it promises to greatly improve service along the existing route. Think of what it would mean for you commuting to Chicago by auto if you had to pull over when there was traffic coming in the opposite direction. That’s what has been happening along parts of the existing route because there wasn’t a second set of tracks to allow trains to pass each other, eastbound and westbound, along much of the route. Adding that second set of tracks will speed the trains and put Michigan City solidly within commuting distance of Chicago. It’s a long commute now, but when the travel time is shortened to an hour, that makes it easier to sell homes to commuters in Michigan City and points west.

Valparaiso doesn’t have commuter rail yet, but it does have the Chicago Dash offering bus service between downtown Valparaiso and downtown Chicago. Valparaiso is starting to plan for transit-oriented development You’re going to hear a lot about that kind of development. It puts housing and retail near transit hubs, such as train and bus stations. It’s going to happen along the new route, and it will happen along the existing route. As Northwest Indiana gets more and more attention from the west side of the state line, you can expect to see more and more development near South Shore stations. Barriers to that development will need to be addressed. Gary’s school system, for example, has been rated failing for at least the last three years. Commuters with children will think twice about moving to an area without consistently good schools. But redevelopment has to begin somewhere, and along train stations will be where you see the greatest potential. Where skeptics have seen decay along the existing route, I see potential — and lots of it.

Article by Doug Ross Times of Northwest Indiana.  Click here to see the article.